Thursday, September 26, 2013

Boehner's Unlikely But Plausible Anti-Insanity Program

Information is starting to emerge about what the House is going to try to do in the next few weeks. Nothing is certain, especially the details, but the broad outline is fairly clear now.

What's John Boehner up to? Remember, my view is that he's trying to avoid a shutdown or debt limit breach (because the situation for him gets worse post-deadline than pre-deadline) while at the same time keeping his conference from blaming him for anything. At least privately; one of the costs I assume he's willing to accept is for many of them to blame him publicly for things they actually want him to do. But that has to be done sparingly. If he consistently "sells out" mainstream conservatives, even if they want him to, at some point they won't be able to sustain it and will have to get rid of him for the pretense to work.

This is not an easy position for him.

So in response, he's preparing a series of votes that is intended, apparently, to keep all those balls in the air at the same time. He has to win each of these votes, but not always with the same voting coalition. And remember, he's already won the initial vote on the defunding-included CR. Remaining:

* A CR retreat bill.

Proposed voting coalition: Ideally, for Boehner, it's a unanimous GOP plus a fair-sized chunk of Democrats. The CR retreat bill would be a "clean" CR (sequestration funding levels), still to mid-December, and would also include face-savers, perhaps including repealing the medical device tax and prohibiting Members and staff from getting subsidies on the exchanges.

Problems: if it's not a full surrender, which it apparently won't be, then conservatives are going to push for just a little more...which will drive away Democrats, risking (1) that the bill might fail in the House if the Crazy Caucus votes no without Obamacare defunding, or (2) that the Senate sends it back with everything stripped out again.

* Possible short-term CR extentsion(s)

Proposed voting coalition: the entire House. Leadership was floating a one-week CR yesterday afternoon; the idea would be to leave time for a proper (ha!) 10 week CR. Everyone should be willing to live with it, unless Cruz's allies decide it's a trick to get a long-term clean CR a bit at a time.

* Possible 3rd try at a CR

Proposed voting coalition: Majorities of both parties? This one shows up if the CR retreat bill winds up passing on a partisan vote and the Senate sends back a clean (or cleaner) one a second time. Boehner's hope has to be that at this point he can find a majority vote from both parties, perhaps by paring down the extras again (a totally clean one would presumably need mostly Democratic votes). Perhaps by now his conference is convinced to finally accept the win on funding levels, or just sick enough of it that they're willing to vote to get it over with.

* Christmas Tree debt limit bill.

Proposed voting coalition: Full GOP conference. This appears to be a bill filled with goodies for everyone in the GOP conference; it should pass with little trouble on a party-line vote.

* Debt limit surrender

Proposed voting coalition: This is where Boehner's going to have to violate Hastert, with every Democrat and a small number of Republicans averting a debt limit breech and accepting a clean debt limit increase that the Senate will send back to them. Maybe, if Boehner is really lucky, he can find something like forcing a vote on the budget (that the Senate wanted to take) as a fig leaf on this one, although it won't fool anyone.

* Possibly more: it's possible that they'll ping-pong the debt limit multiple times; it's possible that there could be a short-term debt limit increase (yes, they can do that).

Okay, I think that's it.

Can he pull it off?

If you squint just hard really could be possible. Each step along the way seems plausible, doesn't it? Boehner has been preparing his conference for a surrender on the CR for a while now; they got to take a defunding vote and send it to the Senate, where they can blame its failure on either Ted Cruz (for those looking for the sane primary vote) or Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and the rest of the squishes (for everyone else). The pitch, from Boehner is to transfer the demands from CR to debt limit, preparing for the CR retreat votes. Then all that's left is to capitulate on the debt limit with a Hastert violation after the Senate sends back a clean debt limit extension.

I think the key to this whole thing is to get a majority of Republicans agreeing to whatever the final (until December) CR might be. If Boehner can manage that, then it's only one Hastert violation in the whole sequence -- only one bill where Boehner probably has to take a lot of (public) blame from mainstream conservatives.

Granted, it could blow up in any number of ways.

But it avoids the procedure that could win better results but that Tea Partiers won't all: striking a deal with the White House. The best thing about this whole strategy is that Boehner can, if the votes line up right, get through the entire thing with absolutely no negotiation with Harry Reid, Barack Obama, or Nancy Pelosi.

Notice that one of the things he's doing here is that since negotiating is forbidden, he's using the first run at these bills not to establish a negotiating position, but to give his conference an opportunity for position-taking. That's the way to understand the Christmas tree debt limit bill they're preparing; knowing that eventually they'll have to settle for little or nothing, this way Republicans in the House get to declare what they were for before the Senate (and, perhaps, Boehner) sold them out.

Oh, and remember: there's still a rest-of-the-year CR that they'll have to do in November or December -- and that's the one that Democrats are claiming that they're going to fight on.


  1. "Then all that's left is to capitulate on the debt limit with a Hastert violation after the Senate sends back a clean debt limit extension."

    Oh, that's all?

    I agree with your analysis, at least up to here, but I think this is where it gets tricky. I mean, yes, it's only one Hastert Rule violation in this sequence, but it's the third one since 2012, and on the issue that he promised he'd fight on. Will Republicans care? I don't know. Will Boehner THINK that Republicans will care, and thus not do it? That seems likelier to me. So I think we're playing "Who Frightens John Boehner the Most?" and I sure don't want odds on that.

  2. Not just who frightens him the most, but how many defect.

    If Boehner runs at the Christmas Tree but DeMint spooks and whips enough House members, the Christmas Tree, uh, falls over.

    I don't understand why the response of Harry Reid would be to take the House bill just now, add amendments lifting the debt limit, and abolishing the sequester, and hand it back to John Boehner.

    But even without that, this is sort of like croquet in "Alice in Wonderland" and fully expecting the flamingo to comply.

    1. I wondered about this too. However, the Democrats appear to believe that they made a deal, and the end result of that deal is the sequester. They appear to think there is value in not reneging on this deal.

      It could be that there plan is to slap down the crazy, saying "no," twice. And then, maybe do something else.

    2. I don't think it's a deal-making, deal-keeping issue, exactly. I think there's indications that either the leadership or the caucus picked their hill to die on/trench to fight from, and this wasn't it, for whatever reason.

      Still, given that the other side wants to smash all the norms and eat voters like mice, might as well start playing hard ball.

      'cause then there's this: "

      House GOP leaders have been scrambling for days to find a plan that would get them to 218 votes, and without any sort of health care language, they might not be able to pass a bill without Democratic help. Sources say the GOP leadership team has tried to impress upon rank-and-file members that they would be blamed in the event of the shutdown, but so far that effort has not helped." from Rollcall this afternoon.

      Apparently the flamingo can't strike the hedgehog after all.

  3. Wow, JB, that was quite a roadmap.

    It's in stark contrast to what the Tea Party is doing. They don't seem to have a plan, which is why they're at a loss for each next step. They are so much like the underpants gnomes it makes me want to scream.

  4. Question: Isn't a repeal of the medical device tax a method of defunding Obamacare? The tax pays for the subsidies. If they repeal the tax the Republicans get what they want. They defunded part of Obamacare. They'll be able to campaign on that and the Senate would be complicit in a bipartisan defunding of Obamacare. Has anyone argued over this?

    1. The subsidies aren't specifically tied to funding sources - they're just allocated as mandatory expenditures in the bill. All repealing this tax would do is slightly reduce the bill's deficit reduction.

  5. Thanks, JB. This is a very helpful post.

    1. What it makes me think is that this is less an anti-insanity plan than it is a CYA plan. If sanity was his priority, there are much more straightforward and less risky was to avoid a shutdown and default.

  6. Sounds like a plan to drag out crisis governance as long as possible, without falling into shutdown or default. Multiply the showdowns and iterations so the national political and economic atmosphere is as dejected and uncertain as possible, sapping at the approval rating of Obama, never allowing economic lift-off, ringing in 2014 with malaise.


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